On Borrowings

Rabih Alameddine, whose new novel The Hakawati will be published in a couple of weeks, has a nice piece in the Los Angeles Times about English words borrowed from other languages, and how the connotations for those words change once they are incorporated:

English has yet to incorporate these words fully, and history suggests it might never do so. The language is filled with words that are culture specific: “sahib,” “coolie,” “effendi,” “bey.” The word “emir” simply means prince in Arabic, but in English it is a prince or ruler of an Islamic state. When my sister in Beirut tells her daughter a bedtime story, the emir kisses the sleeping princess awake. No mother in the U.S. or Britain would let an emir anywhere near a princess’ lips. No princess will ever sing “Someday My Emir Will Come.”

That in some ways is how it should be. Language, after all, is organic. You can’t force words into existence. You can’t force new meanings into words. And some words can’t or won’t or shouldn’t be laundered or neutered. Language develops naturally.

I bring all this up, however, to get to the word whose connotation I would love to see changed — “Allah.”

Allah means God.

In Arabic, Muslims, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians all pray to Allah. In English, however, Christians and Jews pray to God, and Allah is the Muslim deity. No one would think of using the word “Allah” to talk about any other religion. The two words, “God” and “Allah,” do not mean the same thing in English. They should.

And brilliantly he explains why. By the way, something tells me that many, many stories will be written about The Hakawati (The storyteller) so you’ll want to get your copy soon.

(Photo credit: RAWI)